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Cell phone repair stores flourish across the Tampa Bay area

Laid off from work, Brian Kirk decided last year to start his own business.

He has a degree in electronics. His wife, Marinella Di Benedetto-Kirk, is addicted to her BlackBerry. One day while researching franchises, they learned about a chain of stores called CPR, or Cell Phone Repair.

The 10-year-old brand started in Orlando and grew nationwide, but there were none in the Tampa Bay area.

"It sounded like a good opportunity, so we said let's give it a shot," said Brian Kirk, 41.

In July, the Kirks opened CPR Tampa Bay on Preserve Walk Lane in New Tampa. The store fixes all makes and models of cell phones, as well as mp3 players and video gaming systems.

Like other business owners in the area, the Kirks are taking advantage of a robust cell phone repair market that has grown with the popularity of smartphones too expensive to replace easily. Common cell phone fixes have a price tag between $50 and $150, store owners said. By contrast, buying a new smartphone can cost upwards of $600.

That's where repair shops come in like the Kirks', uBreakiFix in Carrollwood, the iHospital in South Tampa and iFixandRepair in Brandon.

Some say the trend is mirroring what happened to the auto industry over the last century. When automobile manufacturing increased and more people bought cars, repair shops flourished, too.

The most common request the Kirks receive at CPR is to repair water damaged phones. One woman came to the store after she dropped her iPhone 4 in a lake, Kirk said.CPR fixed the phone, but about a week later the woman returned. She had dropped it again — this time in a pool.

• • •

Owners of the Cell Specialists on E Fletcher Avenue say they were ahead of the curve. Back when the store opened 11 years ago, most clients were businessmen who needed help retrieving data stored on brick-like mobile phones.

Over the years, cell phones got smaller and cheaper and some questioned whether a repair shop that only fixes mobile phones was necessary. Sam Marcos, who co-owns the shop with Waled Ismeal, predicted the phones would eventually morph into minicomputers that people couldn't live without.

"We were telling everybody, just hold on a few years and you will see," Marcos said.

Located in a strip mall, one side of the shop is a retail area where customers drop off phones and browse a large selection of accessories. On the other side, technicians work at stations lined with microscopes, a variety of battery chargers, and tiny work tools.

On Saturday afternoons, Marcos said, the retail side is standing-room only.

"The busiest stores in town are cell phone repair shops right now," he said.

Many of the newest repair shops in the Tampa Bay area are part of larger chains. The owners of iFixandRepair once operated independent AT&T wireless stores across Florida.

"We sold all 45 locations and kind of changed gears into the service and repair business," regional manager Jason Donahey said.

The iFixandRepair chain launched only a year ago but has already grown to about a dozen stores. The company fixes all makes and models of personal electronics and is mostly found in malls.

In addition to a store inside Westfield Brandon, the chain also has a location at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg and was expected to open a store in Westfield Citrus Park this weekend, Donahey said. An International Plaza location is also in the pipeline.

As the industry flourishes, the Better Business Bureau advises mobile phone owners to do their homework before choosing a repair shop.

They should first check their manufacturer's warranty to see if the repairs are already covered before paying out of pocket, according to Karen Nalven, president of the Better Business Bureau of West Florida.

If not, they should verify the repair shop is reputable, get quotes in writing and look for companies that guarantee their repair work.

"Many complaints received by the BBB indicate consumers pay for repairs and end up with a phone that still does not work or the phone is never to be seen again," Nalven said.

That might be less likely to happen at the iHospital in South Tampa where employees wear scrubs and repair labs have "operating room windows" that allow customers to monitor the work. That puts phone owners at ease to know they can see exactly what is being done to their pricey gadgets, owner Ross Newman said.

"It's not disappearing into the back room," he said.

Newman said he set out to reinvent the cell phone repair shop experience when he opened the shop in January 2010. Now there are five stores, including one by the University of South Florida, and two more in Tennessee are on the way.

The iHospital stores service only Apple devices, and medical references don't stop at the name or the "operating rooms."

When a technician successfully completes training, Newman gives them the title DiD, or "doctor of i-devices."

The young entrepreneur, who turns 27 on Saturday, says he has been a business owner since launching a wholesale jewelry company at age 14. Over the years, he said he developed software for Apple and later fixed iPhones and iPods for friends.

Newman tried to go the college route. But after taking a class during one semester at the University of Florida, he called it quits and went back into business for himself.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Cell phone repair stores flourish across the Tampa Bay area 11/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 6:03pm]
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